UniSA program aims to end suicide in rural communities

Many Australian farmers are troubled by issues outside their control: bad weather, falling commodity prices, disease outbreaks, ebbing demand for produce. These can lead to difficult streams of thought which are hard to ignore – especially because many farmers spend long stretches of time working in isolation. At the same time, cultural expectations can mean some farmers feel they have to remain stoic in the face of looming hardship. While some can cope with the pressure, others can’t – farmers have twice the suicide rate of other employed Australians.

So UniSA psychologist and associate professor Kate Gunn and her colleagues developed the free iFarmwell self-help website to provide farmers across the nation with free and largely anonymous advice on how cope with mental stress. Farmers who sign up on the site can work through the modules at their own pace. From four generations of farmers in South Australia herself, Gunn has ensured the website’s language and content suits the rural mindset.

“We teach them the strategies via the website,” she says. “We’ve shown we can change the way they behave and change the way they think about their situations.”

Gunn has been researching farmers’ mental health since 2008 and with a decade’s worth of insight under her belt, she launched the iFarmwell website in 2018.

“Farmers really appreciate it when we recognise their challenges are unique,” she says. “Thousands of people have accessed the website, hundreds of farmers have done our modules. We’ve found it reduced their stress levels, their wellbeing improves and the gains are maintained for at least six months afterwards. We’re proud our website leads to meaningful behaviour change.”

Each of the five modules on the website takes about half an hour to complete, and the iFarmwell site sends text messages to farmers who have signed up to help them introduce the recommended self-help strategies into their lives.

“None of their families and friends will know, but we have their email addresses and their phone numbers,” Gunn says. “And if people become highly distressed, we actually call them and check in on them and have a chat, and often suggest they go and see their GP.”

The first section of the website is designed to help farmers understand the thoughts circling in their heads and to help reduce the power of those thoughts, she adds. A successive module helps them identify the matters of importance in their lives and determine how they could spend their time more effectively.

“The modules include mindfulness-based approaches, but we don’t call it that because some farmers don’t relate to terms like mindfulness, they think it’s for hippies,” Gunn says. “We call it strategies to help you build your attention muscle, to strengthen your ability to shift your attention from one thing to another.”

Gunn and her colleagues are now seeking federal government support for campaigns to lift some of the rural stigma around mental health and to fund a farmer-friendly helpline. “Farmers could ring the helpline without a referral,” she says, “and speak to either another farmer or a mental health professional. We’d love to co-design this with farmers from around Australia.”

The Australian